The Buck Stops Here!

V’nasata es ha’brachah al Har Gerizim v’es ha’klalah al Har Eival (Devarim 11:29)

Parashas Re’eh begins with Moshe informing the Jewish people that when they entered the Land of Israel, blessings would be given on Mount Gerizim, while curses would be uttered on Mount Eival. Rashi explains that the Kohanim and Leviim stood in the middle and turned to face Mount Gerizim when they said the blessings, and then turned toward Mount Eival when giving the curses.

Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that while these two mountains are physically located in close proximity to one another, their appearances are vastly dissimilar. While Mount Gerizim is full of lush trees and grass, its neighbor Mount Eival is rocky and dry, a physical representation of the difference between blessing and curse. Still, it is difficult to understand how two mountains of approximately the same size and subject to the same climate patterns could turn out so differently, with one mountain producing extensive vegetation, while the other remains barren and desolate.

Rav Hirsch posits that the variance in their outcomes is not a result of the external factors to which they are subjected, which are indeed comparable, but rather to what each mountain contains within. Mount Gerizim possesses healthy soil which is capable of supporting growth, while Mount Eival does not.

Harav Nissan Kaplan of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim derives from this explanation the folly of a widespread line of thinking. We often convince ourselves that if we had grown up in a certain family, attended a specific elite yeshivah, and been born with additional talents and different life circumstances, we would have turned out as different — and better — people. Unfortunately, because we were placed into our families of origin and grew up and were educated in often suboptimal conditions, we reason that we had no choice but to become the people we did.

However, this line of thinking is fundamentally mistaken, as Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival teach us that what we become is dependent not on external circumstances, but on what we contain within us and what type of people we elect to become. If we choose to become the best Jew we can be no matter what environment we are given, we will blossom and sprout like Mount Gerizim; but if we choose not to work on ourselves and to justify our behavior based on our life situations, we will sadly remain barren like Mount Eival. The lesson of these two mountains is that the power to decide what type of life we wish to lead is fully in our control, irrespective of any external circumstances we may experience.

Q: The Torah requires (15:7–11) a person to be compassionate and merciful toward his poor brethren and to generously open his hand to dispense charity to assist them. Rashi writes (15:8) that whatever a person had prior to becoming poor, we are required to supply him with. If a wealthy man used to give large donations to the synagogue and was honored with the sixth aliyah during the reading of the Torah but lost his money and is no longer able to continue his pledges, is the synagogue obligated to continue honoring him as if he could?

A: An incident occurred in the synagogue of Harav Meir Michel Rabinowitz in Vilna, where a wealthy man who had been accustomed to be honored every Shabbos with the sixth aliyah, for which he gave generous contributions to the synagogue, suffered a financial setback and was no longer able to do so. Because the synagogue needed large sums of money to cover its expenses, some suggested that the honor be given to other wealthy members. Rav Rabinowitz ruled that they must continue to honor the formerly wealthy man due to the requirement to provide him with the level of honor to which he was accustomed prior to his setback. As proof, he cited the Gemara (Kesuvos 67b) which records that on behalf of a pauper who had grown up wealthy, Hillel procured a horse on which he could ride and a servant to walk in front of him. On one occasion when he was unable to find a servant, Hillel himself walked in front of the man for almost two miles. While the horse was necessary because the man was unaccustomed to traveling by foot, Hillel’s inclusion of the servant demonstrates that we must give the poor person not only the physical possessions to which he was accustomed, but the level of respect as well. However, Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, quotes his father-in-law, lbcl”c, Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, as maintaining that this principle only applies to somebody who has actually become poor, in which case we are required to provide him not only with the basics, but also the level of comfort to which he was accustomed; but in a case where he is simply not as well off as he used to be and is only lacking luxuries, there is no such obligation.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email